Thursday, October 26, 2006

Michael J. Fox and Stem Cell Research

Michael J. Fox is much in the news lately promoting embryonic stem cell research. Following his emotional pleas, other celebrities such as Jim Caviezel (Passion of the Christ star) and Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond and honorary chair for Feminists for Life) have entered the fray.

This ongoing controversy deserves a separate post (which I hope to undertake) but there are very important facts about stem cell research that the average citizen urgently needs to know in order to safeguard society. This may sound extreme but the principles at stake in this debate are very weighty.

Perhaps I can help to sketch out for you the landscape of stem cell research in this posting. If you are in the dark on this subject, please take a few minutes to hear me out.

Embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) requires that stem cells be taken from five day old human embryos, directly resulting in the destruction of that embryo. However, stem cell treatments can originate from sources other than human embryos. Adult (non-embryonic) stem cells are available from placentas and umbilical cord blood and have already proved successful in treating more than 70 different diseases and conditions. By contrast, ESCR has produced no successful medical therapies in humans. Yet those who promote ESCR make bold (and misleading) claims that it is immensely promising and that it has the potential to relieve or cure dozens, even hundreds, of serious human illnesses such as cancer, Parkinson's and diabetes.

Recently, a confusing Toronto Star editorial which condemned President Bush’s recent veto (which blocked legislation that would have required taxpayer money to fund ESCR) stated that Canada would be hurt by this. The claim was made that “Canada wisely has gone a different route, cautiously and under very strict rules approving the research use of stem cells from embryos…” The truth is that very recently the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) announced that it will allow the creation of living human embryos specifically for research purposes and approved a $523,000 project to do just that. The CIHR unashamedly stated that it does not consider that a human being at the embryonic stage has any inherent moral status. One of the chief researchers on the project said he sees no problem with the research. “There are embryos going down the drain all the time.”

Here’s the important question. Even if the extravagant claims of ESCR materialized over time, would it be right to do research on embryos? Science, philosophy, moral common sense and Christian teaching argues that the embryo qualifies as a human being. From the moment of conception a unique individual is created, distinct from its father and mother and every other living thing, first in the form of a zygote, then an embryo, then a fetus.

Moral logic for judging this unborn human life must be applied by a truly just society. It’s wrong to kill innocent human beings. ESCR (and abortion) kills innocent human beings. Therefore ESCR (and abortion) is wrong. If the zygote or embryo or fetus is not a human being, no justification for either abortion or ESCR is necessary. However, if it is a human being, no justification for taking his or her life is adequate.

Human beings have intrinsic value and their worth cannot be evaluated in terms of how useful one thinks them to be or what one thinks of their future or current quality of life. Arguing the benefits of ESCR ("Think of all the people it will help"), even if true, holds no merit. If embryos are in fact human beings (and therefore intrinsically valuable), then the end does not justify the means in the case of ESCR. We do not sacrifice human beings for medical purposes regardless of the good it might bring others. Human beings, unborn or born, deserve the same legal protections.

What should we do with the “leftover” embryos? Simple, really. Because each embryo is a valuable human being, we should treat him/her like anyone else. Each one should be protected from being destroyed or sold off as a medical experiment or pillaged for valuable body parts. Find mothers who are willing to adopt them (by implantation) or failing that, allow them to die naturally. To prevent a similar dilemma in the future, in vitro fertilization should be restricted to the number of eggs that can safely be carried by the mother without risking "selective reductions" which is medical jargon for abortion.

A careful analysis of the funding of ESCR will show that it is actually morally worse than legal abortion. No woman purposely sets out to kill her unborn child through abortion. Many factors are brought to bear upon her before she makes such a decision. By contrast, those who advocate public funding for ESCR purposefully aim to destroy human embryos and seek to convince the public to pay for it, even though the prospects for cures are very distant and unproven, and even though adult stem cell research is daily proving itself and is unquestionably ethical. Furthermore, when parents of these living human embryos donate them to science, they deny the humanity of their own offspring and reduce them to scientific objects and commodities.

We as Canadians must do our best to care for those who have difficult diseases but we must do it without hurting others in the process. Aggressively promoting and funding the scientific research of somatic (adult) stem cells is the wise, just and decent path to follow. All prolifers should be calling on the government of Canada to do exactly that and to immediately stop the creation and funding of human embryos and ESCR.

[Short video primer on stem cell research by Family Research Council, entitled Beyond Hype, Real Hope.]

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